AXPONA: JVS Dances with the Big Boys

If you want to know why Stereophile's John Atkinson, Jana Dagdagan, and Herb Reichert journeyed to Philadelphia earlier this year to conduct two video interviews with Doug White of The Voice That Is, you only had to hear his set-up at AXPONA to understand that their trip was in pursuit of excellence. If what they heard in Philly was anything like the sound Doug managed to produce in a modest-sized hotel room, they must have left elated.

Once you see the system list—Tidal Audio Akira speaker ($215,000), Presencio Reference preamplifier ($77,900), Impulse monoblock amplifiers ($64,900/pair), and Reference cabling; Aurender N10 music server ($7999); Bricasti M1se DAC ($10,000); TW-Acustic Raven AC-3 turntable ($20,000) and 10.5 tonearm ($5,490) with Transfiguration Proteus D cartridge ($10,500); Dynamic Design power cords; StillPoints ESS GRID Rack ($10,870 each in this configuration), Ultra SS Isolators ($249 each), Ultra 6 Isolators ($899 each), and Aperture Panels ($699–$749); and Signal Projects Poseidon S40 power conditioner ($11,000)—you'll understand why I've titled this blog, "Dancing with the Big Boys." Granted, size and numbers don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, but this system had that and more. Far more.

To these ears, some electronics produce a more beautiful sound than others. On the LP Memories of Thelonious Sphere Monk, which Andre Jennings of TAS brought to the room, Ray Brown's bass was both deep and gorgeous in tonality. Despite Brown's intonation issues, and one small resonant node in the room where his sound swelled beyond natural proportions, the sound of his deep-pitched instrument was as beautiful as it was believable. Ditto for Milt Jackson's vibraphone. Thanks, Andre.

Turning to music with which I am very familiar, the huge voice of mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in hi-rez was beautifully reproduced without sweat, but devoid of bright high edge which I know from hearing her live is endemic to her vocal production and crucially captured on the recording. Similarly, while the system excelled in conveying the sheer volume of Lou Harrison's wild assortment of repurposed percussion "instruments" in his Violin Concerto, nailed the height and meaty tone of the violin and the complex undertones and overtones of each instrument with lightning-fast clarity, it softened the natural ring on the leading edge of tones. What that means is that when the microphone and sound/mastering engineer(s) faithfully captured the bright, potentially piercing leading edge of instruments, the system softened it just enough to allow for high volume without ear bleed.

This, admittedly, is a trade-off that many audiophiles prefer. It certainly didn't prevent me from leaving the room with reluctance—I wish I could have stayed to listen to the choral LP that Doug wanted to play for me—and with the certainty that this was one of the finest systems at AXPONA 2017.

The Magico room on the 6th floor may not have had the company's biggest loudspeaker, but that didn't stop the Magico S3 Mk II loudspeakers ($28,000 /pair), supported by SPOD8 spikes ($2995/set of eight), from making an impressive showing. The system sounded superb with a Kronos Pro turntable ($38,000) with external power supply ($13,000), Black Beauty tonearm ($8,500), arm board ($675), and extension board ($875), and a Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge ($14,995); and CH Precision L1 linestage ($34,500), with X1 power supply ($17,000), P1 phono stage ($31,000), and M1 monoblocks ($102,000/pair). Magico QPOD3s ($1310/3) were under all front-end electronics, and MPOD3s under each M1 monoblock ($3,150/3). Equipment was arrayed on two Magico system racks.

I wanted very much to listen to my hi-rez files of Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony performing the finale of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but transferring them to the Baetis Ref2 server so they could play through a Berkeley Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 was no easy task. Instead, we opted for an original Master LP of Muti's version with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The sound was very honest and open on top, and clearly communicated Muti's superior ability to express the savage brutality of Stravinsky's music. Horns, too, sounded much more raw and impactful than Seattle's. The only thing missing from the presentation was percussive fullness, which I'll venture a bet reflects not only the recording itself but also the limitation of speakers with drivers the size of the S3 Mk II's. When it comes to percussion, size does matter.

Certainly a big boy in the price department, Goldmund presented the Swiss-made Logos Sukha self-powered loudspeaker ($95,000/pair) with aluminum cabinet. To quote from the PR, "Sukha is a word meaning 'the wisdom that allows us to see the world as it is, without veils or distortions. It is the joy of moving toward inner freedom.' In Pali, Sukha means happiness and ease, bliss or pleasure, and that is exactly what our engineers had in mind when designing this speaker."

The Logos Sukha has a frequency response of 26Hz (-6dB)–25kHz. It contains three Telos amplifiers per side (one for each driver), outputting a total of 600W, and weighs 94 kg per side, with frame. Paired with the Goldmund Eidos 17 Universal player, based "on the latest" Oppo design (which probably does not mean the just-released, audiophile grade Oppo UDP-205 universal player that was just released), the system delivered a good depiction of height and space and a really mellow and revealing midrange on my Chesky CD of bossa nova great Rosa Passos and bassist Ron Carter. I could clearly hear the sound of the microphone and the acoustic surrounding it. Alas, the top was slightly rolled off, the midrange over-emphasized, and colors a little whited out.

Ditto for my CD of pianist Murray Perahia. The hall acoustic was clearly evident, as well as the continuity between individual notes in lightning-fast scales that were ideally conveyed, but the brilliance on top was truncated.

My last stop before show's close enabled me to check out the new Fern & Roby Montrose turntable with Uni-Pivot tonearm ($4950). Shown in prototype form at RMAF 2016, at AXPONA 2017 it appeared in static (albeit rotating) display. Originally designed to work with the company's tonearm, it has since been revised to accept others, such as the Schröder CB tonearm by Thrax ($8950 total).

Also shown in static display was the company's diminutive new MC/MM Maverick 2.0 phono preamp ($625). If purchased with its optional kit ($925 total), it comes with extra daughter boards.

While I'd be exaggerating to claim that Stereophile never sleeps when duty calls, I first got to see the new Transparent 8-outlet Reference Power Isolator with 2m input Reference power cord ($5995 total) after hours. Sporting a hybrid aluminum and thermoformed polymer enclosure, it not only resists vibrations and electromagnetic field restrictions while silencing broadband AC line noise, but thankfully also includes hydraulic-magnetic circuit protection and avalanche diode failsafe surge protection. Outlets are divided into four individually isolated banks of two outlets each.

Given that it was chill-out time for everyone in the room, listening was not possible.

My final after-hours stop was to say hello to the folks in the large room on the second floor where Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeakers were paired with a dCS front end and Dan D'Agostino Master Systems' Momentum phonostage, preamplifier, and bridged M400 Momentum monoblock amplifiers. Since everyone thought I'd be returning on the last day of the show, no one bothered to tell me about the debut D'Agostino Progression stereo amplifier ($22,000), pictured below in static display. (I'm working on a review of the Progression monoblocks now). Since my focus was on premieres, and I knew of none in the room, I never returned for a good listen to this big-boy system.

That's a shame, because one fellow audio journalist told me after show's close that he felt the sound far superior to that with Doshi amplification last year. Follow-up inquiries revealed that Larry Marcus from Paragon Sight and Sound did the initial positioning and tuning of the Alexx, with Dave Wilson offering input at the end. According to D'Agostino's Bill McKiegan, "the Alexx does very well with one pair of M400's. However, the extra power of a bridged mono pair, 1,200 W into 8 Ohms, offers a level of control that translates to phenomenal spatial reproduction and startling dynamic contrasts. Existing M400 customers can upgrade to this configuration."

Damn. I missed it.

Anton's picture

"Dancing with the Big Boys."

"I never returned for a good listen to this big-boy system."

Why is it necessarily big "boys?"


How does one determine a system's gender? (I told her price.)

Thanks for the great reports.

The looks of Fern and Roby are right up my aesthetic alley, so to speak.

Anvil and Shinola, too.

I don't mind some fashion sense with my gear!

Good Wife Acceptance Factor!

Cheers, Jason.

My wife wants to know what big girl systems you might have encountered, or are those all table radios with chardonnay glass holders?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Guilty as charged. Except there's plenty of guilt to go around (if you want to buy into it). The absolutely correct phrase is "Good Spouse/Partner Acceptance Factor (SPAF)."

thevoicethatis's picture

Thank you Jason for the great reporting of our efforts at Axpona. I appreciate your time with us and are happy that you enjoyed the sound. Just a quick note for clarity. Connectivity for the majority of the system (Amps, Preamps, XLR IC's, Speaker and Digital cables) was made using TIDAL Audio's new Reference cables featuring unique hollow core conductors. For their excelence, Dynamic Design's Nebula and Heritage Digital Power cords were used on the Bricasti DAC and Aurender Music Server. Together these products made for the performance your heard. We are happy to have been able to present this system at Axpona.

readargos's picture

This year after missing it previous years and seeing Stereophile's recent video coverage with Doug White. I found the system exquisitely detailed, smooth and transparent, well showcasing color and tonal beauty, but a bit light on warmth and weight in an orchestra's power range. Of course, it is hard to judge under show conditions, but I'd say the sound was more Apollonian. Nevertheless, it was a very good room indeed, and a pleasant surprise to hear such coherence with a large, ambitious system in a smaller room. The Tidal speakers in the Bricasti room exhibited a similar balance. Always great to read JVS' show comments and compare notes.